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The Tears of the Queen Mother of the West

Adapted From: http://www.britishbornchinese.org.uk/pages/culture/legends/mu.html

The origin of Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West, has given rise to some fascinating speculations, and there are many tales about her. In the Shanhaijing (Book of Mountains and Seas) she is depicted as a fearsome creature with a leopard's tail and tiger's fangs, ruling over plague. But in other legends, she is an elegant and charming person, fond of singing.

Modern scholars generally hold to the belief that Xi Wang Mu may well have been the chieftain of a western tribe - possibly a woman, but more likely a man - whose name, phonetically translated into Chinese, suggested a queen mother.

In Tales of Xi Wang Mu written during the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD ) she is pictured as a beautiful woman of 30 who visited the Western Han dynasty emperor Wu Di (reigned 156-87 BC) and on his birthday presented him with peaches of immortality.

Whatever her origin, she is credited with being bearer of peaches which gives immortality to whoever eats them.

One of the most popular tales about Xi Wang Mu concerns a visit to her by King Mu, fifth ruler of the Western Zhou dynasty (11th century - 711 BC). He is famous for a great journey westward beyond the bounds of his realm. Starting from near Luoyang, he is said to have travelled northward to Shanxi and the Huanghe River valley district and then westward across Qinghai to today’s Xinjiang. Many modern historians doubt that he really travelled that far, an enormous distance for those days. The western regions were almost unknown to the people of central China, and fanciful tales about the people and places to be found there were common.

Tales of King Mu, written during the Warring States period (475-221 BC) say that far to the west he encountered a large lake, called Pearl Lake by the natives, where pearls and jade could be found. The water was clear and full of fish, and Mu had a fine time fishing and enjoying the scenery. When they reached a place named Chunshan (near today’s Congling Mountains), they found the slopes blanketed with flowers and numerous rare birds and animals.

They went on to the Kunlun Mountains where they visited Xi Wang Mu in her palace beside a lake named Yaochi (meaning jasper, an attractive coloured stone). He presented her with jade of exquisitely fine quality and three hundred bolts of brocade. She entertained him at a banquet beside the lake, feasting him with fabulous fruits and delicacies. Among them was a lotus that bloomed in winter with pods containing a hundred seeds, black dates two feet long from trees that bore every hundred years, and crisp, cool peaches that ripened only every ten thousand years, and conferred immortality on those who tasted them.

At the banquet, hostess and guest improvised poems for the occasion. The queen's sang:

White clouds in the sky.
Come from the mountains.
Distinguished guest from afar land
Separated by mountains and rivers.
May you live long
and return to us soon.

King Mu responded with:

To the east I go,
But I will return,
When my people are prosperous
And the country strong.
Wait for three years
until we meet again.

King Mu lived for over a hundred years, but there is no record of a second journey to see the queen. On his return to the Zhou capital, his ministers complained that the trip had been too long and too extravagant. The state treasury was almost bare. Faced with the poverty of his people, Mu, who is known as a relatively conscientious ruler, gave up the idea of further travels. The incident was immortalised in a poem written some 1,800 years later by the Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin (813-858).

After waiting for two times three years, Xi Wang Mu finally realized that King Mu would never return to visit her again. She then could not hold back any longer her tears which copiously ran down her cheeks. These tears froze solid in the cold air of the Kun-Lun Mountain and fell to the ground. Year’s later local travellers found these teardrops as the most beautiful pieces of Jade ever discovered in these mountains.

Beautiful Jade from the Kun-Lun’s mines south of Yutien in Xinjiang, China

During a recent visit to Hangzhou I have been able to see and then purchase a handful of Jade slivers of a icy white colour and high translucency at about 8 US$ the piece.

Slivers of Icy White Mountain Jade from Yutien

When enquiring where this material is coming from, the seller mentioned that it is found in very small quantities in a particular Jade mine about 60Km south of Yutien or Keriya, an oasis town 170km to the East of Khotan or Hetien

Map and Satellite image showing Yutien at the southern edge of the Takla-Makan desert and the Kun-Lun Mountain chain with Mountain Jade deposits.

I have been also told that the most beautiful Xinjiang Jade, both from mines and as river boulder material is now coming from then Yutien region as the Khotan mines are becoming slowly but surely exhausted.

These white Jade slivers or “the Tears of the Queen Mother of the West” form when the Jade is extracted from the host rock formation. This particular Jade seems to have enormous build-in tensions and once the piece is extracted, fractures develop and the boulder cleavages and crumbles into smaller pieces at minor mechanical solicitations.

60mm long, naturally cleaved, Icy White Yutien Mountain Jade sliver under transmitted natural lightning

50mm high, Icy White Yutien Mountain Jade sliver with internal fractures and backlit with a white light LED pocket lamp.

Herbert Giess
December 2005

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